When I was a kid, I’d sometimes get my hair cut at Johnny Gibson’s barbershop. Johnny was a Tucson legend, and for a kid like me his shop was a Shangri-La. He had a real live shark that swam in an aquarium, photos of soldiers and race car drivers and Indian chiefs. Johnny’s chair was right up by the window, and I’d often wait for more than an hour for his chair. He was a decent barber, but one hell of a fine storyteller. Years later, when I watched HBO’s Band of Brothers, I realized that Johnny was part of that crew. (albeit in a different company). He was a real patriot, a courageous man who truly believed in this country and what it stands for. He walked the walk and did not suffer fools gladly. Men like Johnny Gibson are always in short supply.
To celebrate the 4th of July, I present Johnny’s amazing story in his own words. It’s all true.
I. BEHIND THE LINES
It was about midnight on June 5, 1944 when I looked out the window of our transport plane and saw a cold but beautiful moon reflecting silver on the channel below. The brilliant puddle of silver shimmered along at water level and seemed to help take my mind from the dreadful experience which was just ahead.
Talking against the roar of the motors was almost impossible but I yelled to my buddy beside me, “How do you feel, Lee?”
After two attempts to make him hear, his answer came back, “Better than I expected. How about you?”
I yelled back the same answer he gave me but inside I was fluttering. My stomach felt full of butterflies and my hands were damp with cold sweat.
I thought of a million things as we kept flying toward the French coast. I’ll never forget the beauty of that moon and how it reminded me of the desert moon that shines so beautifully around my home in Arizona.
There were clouds that night and we flew out from behind one only to sink behind another. During those moments between clouds, the moon shown through the plane windows and lit up the inside. Even though blackened with charcoal, I noticed the expressions on the troopers’ faces. Some looked straight ahead with jaws set firmly and with a serious expression covering their faces. Others looked sad and drawn. All were deeply concerned and anxious. Anxious to finish the war and return home. These men with the reputation of being the Army’s most elite killers were far from killers at heart. Unlike the many German reports that American Paratroopers were ex-convicts and murderers without thought for humanity, the faces I saw there in the moonlight belonged to men who chose to do a difficult job because of a calling within them. Those men had long ago proven that no task was too difficult. There was never a task too difficult to try. The feeling of pride for their loved ones and their country, plus their longing to return home, had built up courage within them which was not to be broken.
The plane rocked in the wind and fell below a few feet only to regain its position in the formation. We flew a tight formation that night and it looked almost possible to step from one lane to the other.
We changed course and, as we made the turn, I could see planes for what seemed like miles behind us flying there in the moonlight. I knew I was seeing only a fraction of the total amount and I suddenly realized what an enormous undertaking this was. I knew the whole world had waited in suspense for months and years for this night to come. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of pride in being among the first to spearhead the invasion of the European continent and start the enormous ball polling.
We flew on and it was getting close to 1AM on June 6th, when one of the boys suddenly yelled, “There she is boys!”, and I knew he meant we were in sight of the coast of France.
The Germans had spent four years preparing a defense against this invasion and were already firing at the leading planes. We were flying low as well as slow and such a tight formation gave the Germans a prize target. To knock down a planeload of carefully trained parachutists must have been a considered quite an accomplishment by them.
I saw a huge red flash and heard a plane-load of men crash off to the right. To think of 18 to 20 men striking the earth in a blazing inferno is not a pleasant thought. I tried not to think about it.
We were to fly for nine minutes over land before reaching our drop zone.
The red light by the door flashed on and our Jump Master yelled, “Stand up and hook up”.
We jumped to our feet and hurriedly snapped our static lines to the strong cable running along the ceiling of the plane. The Jump Master yelled out again with a “Sound off for equipment check”. The answers came down the line: “14 ok, 13 ok, 12 ok”. and down to number 1. We crouched ready to jump and waited in suspense for the green light.
The German 20mm machine guns pounded out a weird tune and their red balls of fire licked up at us like fire from an angry serpent’s tongue. The air cracked and snapped with the sound of bullets.
The green light came on and out into a night sky full of red streaks we leaped. The first half of our plane-load got out quickly and then someone fell down. Several seconds were lost while the man behind him helped him to his feet. Several of us thought of the possibility of the plane crashing and yelled, “Come on, let’s go!”
The men wore heavy leg packs and literally dragged that heavily weighted leg to the door. One by one they dropped out and finally I was watching the fellow in front of me struggle for the door. With main force he pulled his heavy leg pack up into place and leaned out into the prop blast. He left in a split second and I watched him start down.
Not being so heavily laden as the others, I gave a strong leap out into space. The prop blast hit me and sent me hurtling toward the earth. My body position was poor and I felt a hard opening shock, but it was welcomed. From then on until I hit the ground, I don’t know what saved me from being ripped to threads by machine-gun slugs. Red slugs zipped by on every side and I realized there were four in between each red one.
I came swinging into the earth backward and landed first on my heels and then on my back. I whipped out my trench knife and lay very still. Seeing no-one, I stuck my knife in the ground beside me where I could grab it instantly if needed, and began working my way out of my harness. Getting rid of my reserve chute and my “Mae West” lifesaver first. I then unsnapped my chest strap and worked myself free.
On my hands and knees, I looked about and found I had landed in a small field only a few yards from a French farmhouse. Other than myself, the only sign of life which could be seen was a scared horse. The roar of the planes and the banging of the guns had made him wild with excitement. Snorting and blowing off steam like a machine, he kept galloping aimlessly back and forth across the field. Fearing he would give away my position, I looked about for means of concealment. Taking advantage of the only protection in sight, I hurriedly made my way to a stone wall and found a shallow ditch running beside it. The wall was high and shut out the view of the Frenchman’s backyard. I considered climbing over, but fearing the Germans would be occupying the house, I quickly dropped that from my mind. Still breathless and with my heart pounding from the excitement of the jump, I laid in the ditch and tried to relax. Being a medic, I was unarmed except for my trench knife and realized how important it was that I hook up with some of the others.
The planned signal for assembly was a blast from a bugle and the flash of a blue flashlight. With the unexpected reception of fire we received, I knew the Colonel would not risk giving away our position. Using either signal would have been suicide.
The new Red Cross armband on my left arm seemed to shine like a neon light so I hurriedly took it off and stuffed it in my pocket. The dirty one on my right didn’t show up as plainly so Ieft it on.
I looked up the ditch and along the wall in front of me and saw nothing. Just to feel secure, I turned around and looked behind me. What I saw made my heart leap to my throat and I clutched my knife beside me. There in the shadow of the wall was the figure of a man creeping along toward me. Holding my knife in one hand and the tin signal cricket in the other, I waited until he got within 15 feet. I snapped the cricket twice and a second later he snapped his in reply and came quickly to me.
It was Lee, whom I had talked with on the plane. He had jumped behind me. ‘God”, I said, “You scared hell out of me!” He let me know the feeling was mutual. we whispered a few words about finding the others. In the distance could be heard the rapid burp of the German machine guns, and in reply came the slow pounding of the Americans’ .30 caliber. Orders were not to fire until daylight, which would determine each shot fired as enemy. “Keep from engaging the enemy”, we were told, ‘until you can assemble as a unit”. No-one dreamed of receiving such a red-hot reception. The reinforced enemy platoon, which our intelligence said would be roaming around our jump field, turned out to be more like a division.
Lee showed me in the general direction where some of the others had landed. We moved out cautiously. Down a hedgerow and under some trees, we found George Rosie. He was overjoyed to see us. In his words, he was “glad as hell”. Rosie was an ex-football player and the biggest and best-built man in the 81mm mortar platoon. That platoon was known for its strong men. Lee himself, could stick his arms in the mortar tubes and hold them straight out in a crucifix position. With three of us together we felt a little more secure.
Not knowing in which direction to go, we kept still for a moment and listened. The machine guns still pounded away and tracer bullets glanced high, only to lose speed and burn out. After a few moments of listening, Rosie glanced up and in a loud whisper said, ‘Look”. Several hundred yards away and flying at approximately 800 feet was one of our transport planes with its left engine on fire. It was flying in a semi-circle and losing altitude. It was coming towards us. At about 600 feet and with flames licking back past the door, the troopers and plane crew began bailing out. The last chute blossomed out at not more than 200 feet. The plane, totally engulfed in flames, swept over our heads and crashed in the field next to ours. It broke into a million flaming pieces and lit up the entire area for several hundred yards in every direction. I kept wondering why the troops hadn’t jumped when they first saw that the plane was on fire. The only reasonable answer I could give myself was that they wanted to wait and be sure of the right jump field.
From the direction of the burning heap of rubble came four men running as fast as possible over the rough field. The came to within a few feet of us and stopped because of a ditch which was too wide to jump. We recognized them as men from our plane whispered loudly for them to come on over. They waded through the cattails and mud and pulled themselves up over the bank on our side. They were muddy, excited and wet. The burning plane had narrowly missed scoring a direct hit on them. We felt fortunate to have gathered a force of seven men. A group that size meant more protection for one another and gave us a better chance of not being ambushed.
By use of our compass, we decided on an azimuth which would take us to our objective (two bridges and a ferry). Abbey, the man who led us, was an excellent scout and stopped us often at the slightest sound. We followed ditches and hedgerows which kept us concealed. Halfway across the field, the ditch we were following began to get shallow and soon played out entirely. On the left of the ditch ran a dirt road that had a high man-made bank on the other side. The bank was covered with tall grass which appeared to be our best means of cover. Abbey, the first scout, had gone through the gate and was on the road. Ronzani had just reached the gate. Daybreak was breaking through. I don’t know who saw it first, but there it was, a German helmet sticking up out of the grass. Suddenly from behind the bank, a hundred German voices began to jabber in excitement. A dozen or more rose up out of the waist-deep grass and cut loose on us with machine pistols. We were caught in a hopeless position. Abbey and Ronzani were drilled and literally cut to ribbons with slugs. I turned and dived into the shallow ditch and crawled down it with speed I never dreamed could be made on hands and knees. The Germans saw how small a force we had and came up over the bank in hoards. Rosie was one of the first to be grabbed. Swanson was grabbed. His shoulder strap was cut completely in half by machine bullets with no damage to him. Lee made a temporary getaway. There must have been a whole company of those bastards lying there in silence just waiting for daybreak and someone to snuff out.
There were two of us left in the ditch and they came after us with fixed bayonets. Hearing their voices so close, I made a last desperate attempt to hide myself. I spotted a narrow ditch leading off from the main ditch. It was as narrow as my body and had over-hanging sod and grass. I squirmed under the grass. German voices were everywhere and I was real soon looking at the point of a bayonet. The German yelled for me to come out. I got to my feet and stood facing him. I had no weapon. Frontline medics don’t carry them. My heart was pounding hard as I raised my hands to half arms length. He made no attempt to shoot me or use his bayonet. Extreme excitement showed on his face and sounded in his voice. He walked away and looked in the ditch. Another young German took out his pistol and placed it between my eyes, about two inches from my forehead. I thought I was a goner. He put his pistol away. Another Kraut hit me three times between my shoulder blades with the palm of his hand and then struck me just hard enough with his bayonet to cut my clothes. His rough treatment of an unarmed medic was more than I could take. He turned away and searched the ditch.
I was furious and decided to get revenge. I still had my switchblade in a secret place. It was razor-sharp and to a needlepoint. I looked at him from the side and saw a chance to stab him in the jugular vein. He moved away and I realized that killing him would mean instant death for the remaining four of us. I shook it off and went quickly to see if there was anything possible to do for Abbey and Ronzani. The sight was a bloody one. Both were still gasping. Each time I knelt to help I was pulled off by the Germans. That was hard for me to understand. I returned again and was again pulled away. Both were drilled across the chest with machine pistol fire. Many shots had been fired. They were dead and the four of us prisoners were taken across the road and told to lay on our backs with our fingers interlaced behind our heads.
A very shallow ditch offered very little cover. Two young Germans laid on their bellies and pointed their rifles at our heads. Lee fired at them from a very small thicket about 50 yards away. The bullets made strange sounds coming through the grass around us. The two guards squirmed, and bullets were right at them. I thought we were goners. Four Germans made plans to circle Lee. They took off running in the direction of Carentan, circled around, and I heard many shots as they finished our very good friend Charles Lee. Three of our seven were now dead and the four of us quickly separated.
I walked towards Carentan with guards behind me. In the ditch beside the road were two dead troopers, uniforms still clean and boots polished. I didn’t know them. my job was to keep everybody alive. My aid kit and all my belongings had, by that time, been stripped from me. Every damned Kraut took a little more off me. Through the outskirts of Carentan, I marched, arms tired and fingers numb from interlacing them. To show support for the German cause, a French woman cursed me out and spit towards my face.
With attitudes like that, I wondered if our efforts and extreme sacrifice were justified. As I got further inland, the attitude of the French people changed. Many were emotional at the sight of the first American they had seen who came to help kick the Germans out of France.
As I marched there in Carentan, the French civilians were curious and very quiet, except for the spitting lady. By their facial expressions, some showed sympathy for my plight. Little did they know that I had lost three of my group of seven. The sorrow was hard to take. I was moved aimlessly most of the day and shifted from one guard to another. I ran across Charles K. Lewis, who was a member of our regimental boxing team. He had a leg off and was sitting in the bed of a wagon that was pulled by one horse. He was pale and in need of immediate treatment. I had no medical supplies and saw him only briefly. Charles was an Indian from Tensed, Idaho, and never made it back from the war.
That night at dusk I was placed in a very small pig shed with only one small opening. With me was a paratrooper whose leg was off below the knee. He had part of a plasma unit, but I could never get it to work. He shivered and was pale. The pig shed had a dirt floor, and we tried to keep his unwrapped leg out of the dirt. The night was long and the two German guards got sleepy but continued to guard us.
Soon after daybreak, we were separated and I was placed with a group of twenty-nine German walking-wounded. Two American paratroopers were put with the bunch which made a motley group of thirty-two. I was the only one not injured. All were able to walk, but some limped and used tree limbs as canes or crutches. Some had their heads wrapped.
We came upon a small French town that had recently been bombed by American planes. We walked through the main street which was full of rubble. It was a sad sight. I was extremely dry of thirst and, through sign language, I asked permission to get a bottle of liquid from a store whose front and side had been blown off. Permission was not allowed, nor was I allowed to drink from the ditch water. It very well could have been polluted.
At noon we stopped at a vacant building. All thirty-two of us crowded into a small room. I sat there stunned from the events that I had seen happen. The loss of Ronzani, Abbey, Lee, and two other troopers that I had stepped over in a ditch left me with extreme sadness. I turned my face toward the wall and wept silently. No-one heard or noticed a thing. Sadness had engulfed me. I no other choice but to shake it off.
We found a Paris city street bus that had a large red cross painted on the top. It was a clunker, but ran fairly well. It beat walking and was safer. Just before nightfall, we came to the outskirts of St. Lo. It appeared that moments before we arrived, the city had been bombed by allied aircraft. We stopped on a hill overlooking the flaming city. Bomb craters were in the road, and I believe the bus was out of gas. We never used it again. The Germans went to a house and either ran the French out or asked permission to use the house overnight. It also might have been empty because of the bombing. All thirty-two of us crowded into the living room. In a short time, a bunch of straw was brought in and spread out on the floor. The two wounded paratroopers and I stood in a bare spot. With sign language, I asked where we were to bed down. With a loud and gruff voice I was told to lay down on the bare floor.
Very little sleep was had by anyone. We three needed to be guarded which was long and tiresome job. Some of the Germans smoked and talked all night. Soon after daybreak, we started walking. I was told nothing about where we were going or what to expect. We had been given neither food nor water. My two wounded paratroopers were hurting, which made walking difficult. It was very important that they continue. I was holding up well, except for the lack of food and water. My tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth and my stomach did some noisy growling.
Anyone hearing the sound of a motor would holler out a warning signal in German, and we would know that it was an American or British plane. We would hurriedly hit the ditch and remain perfectly still until the plane was out of sight. The German officer in charge of this motley crew was the meanest sounding SOB I ever ran across. He hated the sight of us three Americans. For our safety, I knew enough to mind. He was struggling to walk, due to leg wounds. He saw a bicycle leaning against a tree in a French yard. He hobbled up the bank into the yard and took it. It wasn’t long until he realized that both tires were flat and it couldn’t be ridden. He wired his small suitcase to the handlebars and pushed it. His injuries made it too difficult to push, so he yelled at me to push it. No manners at all from that Kraut. I pushed that junker for a while and when we came to a hill, I got on that thing. Both tires were flat and rubbing against the frame. I went about twenty feet at a snail’s pace and heard the officer yell in German for me to get the hell off of that thing. I had no trouble minding.
At one point we cut across country, which was safer due to the numerous American planes that were looking for anything to strafe. I had to drag that bike up hills and over a few fences. I was able and felt fortunate to be the only one of the thirty-two who was not wounded.
Shortly before dark we stopped at a French farmhouse and the Germans bought two large buckets of fresh milk. They paid the farmer for it and visited with him in a very friendly manner. Before bedding down, they took out their meager rations of black bread, crackers, cheese, and whatever they had left. Each had a cup of that warm fresh milk. The two wounded Americans and I had nothing to eat or drink for two and a half days. Actually, that seemed to be the least of our concerns. Finally, one of the Germans held his canteen cup up and made a gesture meaning that I could use it if I wanted to. I nodded “yes” and started drinking that warm milk. After nine cups they started laughing at me. I finished off twelve of those large cups of warm milk. Permission was given to loan the cup to my fellow prisoners. They had about three each.
We were carefully guarded, but to me, that didn’t seem necessary. I was not going to leave the two wounded troopers. I had no weapon and it was a long and dangerous way back to the front. Early the next morning we walked on, and about noon they stopped at a road junction and visited a long time with a French Priest. At one point during their conversation, he walked over to me and handed me a small piece of candy or pastry. I thanked him and divided it with my two friends. I believe he got permission to do this as he did it very openly.
This group of walking wounded was getting tired and moving slowly. An empty German stake body truck came by and stopped. We all piled into the back and that brought some relief. It raised the morale a bit and we headed out for I knew not where. What a prize that truck would have been for an eager American pilot looking for most anything to strafe.
After a while, we came to a Normandy town called Mortain. We stopped at a Catholic school and church on the outskirts. This three-storied school had been made into a German evacuation hospital. Nothing fancy about this old school building. When cots were scarce they just spread straw on the floor.
After waiting out front in the courtyard, this mean German officer, who seemed to be in charge of our group, started to leave. He looked at me and made a half friendly gesture as if to let me know that he had put in a good word for me and that I was to stay there and tend to the allied wounded prisoners. They gave us a room on the second floor which had some cots for the wounded. I have always wondered what that seemingly mean German told the medical officer in charge of this place about me. He must have told him that I was a willing worker and could be trusted. There were seriously wounded being brought there day and night.
Loebe and Law were in the worst shape. Both had been shot in the chest. The medical officer in charge assured me that, as quickly as possible, the worst wounded would be sent down to a prison hospital in Rennes, Brittany. Ina very few days, Loebe was sent, along with some others to Rennes. Before he left he said to me, “If I ever get out of this alive, I’ll owe my life to you.” Seven weeks later, when I arrived at Rennes, I asked about Loebe. Mike Weiden, a medic from my detachment, told me that Loebe had died very soon after arriving.
At one point in July, when the Americans and British were trying to break the lines and do away with the stalemate, I had forty-two wounded to care for. Most were American, but some were British and Canadian. The Germans told me they had 2,000.
Weiden and Don, who had worked with me, decided to go on down to Rennes to that prison hospital we had heard so much about. I was allowed to keep a helper there at Mortain. He was from an infantry unit and not a medic. He was not into caring for the wounded and made himself almost useless. As we sent Richard Johns toward Rennes, two of the French girls that worked at the hospital gave him a kiss on the cheek. I knew him from G Co. 506th Regiment.
While at Mortain seven weeks, I ran across Germans of many different opinions of the war. Some were mean as hell and hated the uniform I wore. I kept myself clean and my boots looked polished. A French woman who worked there took my clothes to her home and washed them. She placed the three stripes in the back of my O.D. shirt. She was ordered by a trouble-making snoop not to do it, but she continued.
Two of our group of wounded decided to escape and make their way back through the lines. They thought this up on their own and were given some meager rations by someone from the church. They left by darkness and hid in the weeds about a mile from the school. A day and a half later they came walking down the road and through the front gate like nothing had happened. I was called on the carpet and tried to explain that I knew nothing about it and hadn’t even missed them. Our room and beds were taken away from us and we were given the top floor. The snoop was in often and was sure that I had helped in the escape. He took my thin mattress away and watched me closely and often.
I had a hand grenade hidden and hoped that I wouldn’t have to use it. They brought this wounded G.I. in one day for me to care for and three days later he told me about a hand grenade and a lot of money he had in his clothes. I really don’t know why he wasn’t searched closer. He handed the grenade to me an told me that some of his group had captured a German payroll truck. He didn’t know if this stack of new French Francs were any good. He decided to split the stash three ways, a third each to me, my helper, and himself. I made a money belt out of a torn jacket and wore it around my chest, not my belly as most were worn. In that belt I also kept a piece of scratch paper with vital information about where our lost patients were buried and when. I enclosed their serial numbers.
A family from Spain worked for the Germans at the hospital There were a man and wife and two teenage kids. The kids and their mother were not friendly, but the man was. Each morning he would let me know what was going on at the front. He had a radio buried in his yard. Each night at midnight he would listen to the BBC account of the war. It was much appreciated. He had a milk cow and every few days he would slip me a small amount of butter. He had a cherry tree and every few days a few ripe cherries would be slipped to me. We conversed in Spanish. His kindness and food were greatly appreciated.
Two young German Paratroopers showed up one day and seemed very friendly. At first, I was skeptical and on guard. They were personable and nice-looking young men. One told me that Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill should be placed before a firing squad for getting us into this war. One gave me his home address in Germany which I lost. They took off like old friends. Neither was wounded.
While walking down the hall one day, an injured German in a room full of injured called out to me loudly in German. He said in a pitiful voice, “Medic, why war?” That was in July when the German wounded numbered 2,000 and I had forty-two allied wounded to care for. One was a Lt. Col. whose battalion was forced to drive forward when it was not at all wise. Drive forward or be relieved of your command. A downed fighter pilot would say very little, “All I’m telling you is that I have done my share.” He thought I might be a German. I was getting men from many different divisions.
I realized that the war was creeping closer and that we might be overrun or be sent on before that happened. Soon after being captured, I decided that I had a 25% chance of getting out of this ordeal without being killed. I really only stuck my neck out on two occasions. In the front yard, one day a very egotistical ack-ack gunner yelled for me to come over. He showed me medals he had received for shooting down twelve American planes. He shoved this info on me with much rudeness. I told him that it didn’t matter how many he had shot down, that we had thousands and thousands of them in England, and that they would keep coming until we won the war. He became enraged and I thought he might kill me. He wore a pistol on his side and he left it there.
One evening about twenty soldiers, none injured, were standing in the side yard near the kitchen door. They were on their way to the front and had stopped for something to eat. One saw my uniform and called me over. He picked up a stick and, in the dirt, drew a map showing Europe a long way from the U.S. He asked what we were doing in Europe. I told him that we were there to kick the Germans out of France. He was not amused, but some laughs came from some of the bystanders. I think they were amused and amazed at my stupid braveness.
One German soldier working there told me that London was completely destroyed. I said,”No it isn’t”, and that I had boxed near Picadilly Circus in the heart of London in March and that it was not that bad. He couldn’t believe it. They also couldn’t believe that Rome had fallen to the allies.
The Germans allowed me to bury the dead at a cemetery near the church. It was on a hill near Mortain. French civilians dug the graves in an area where French soldiers were buried in 1940. This info was given to U.S. intelligence in London in August of 1944.
In the entire German Army, there couldn’t have been a better man than the old medical officer we called “Kommandant”. He was the most overworked man I have ever seen. He had very little help at times and that place was full of wounded. He spoke almost no English, but one day he said to me, “Mon s Mon”, meaning that he treated all the wounded equal. I had a patient from my third battalion who had been shot in the kneecap; I mean, it was shattered and he suffered. He would cry out loudly in the middle of the night and beg for morphine. I would go downstairs in the dark and awaken this old doctor and tell him I needed morphine. He would get up and take a key and unlock a small medicine cabinet. He would loan me a partial syringe of morphine and ask me to just use a little. He did this in the dark with sign language. What I gave my friend would only last a couple hours.
We were shorted one day by being given only half a sandwich each instead of a whole one like the Germans got. I was going to let it slide but complaints from a couple of others forced me to go down and explain it to the Kommandant. He nodded that he understood, and I returned to work. In about a half-hour here came the mean one from the kitchen with the other half sandwich for each of us plus a boiled egg for each. I was surprised and pleased. I was on that little kitchen runt’s shit list from then on. He hated all of us prisoners.
Each time an American plane would strafe a German ambulance, I would catch hell. Day or night, when the German ambulances would arrive strafed. I would hear them calling “Medic” on German. The word sounds like Sonny. I would go down to the front yard and be shown machine gun holes in the side of the ambulance. It would be plainly marked by a large red cross. It was expected of me to explain the reason. My answer was that the ambulance must have been in a convoy and wasn’t detected by the pilot. If that didn’t reach the point, then I would assure them that all pilots were trained to honor the red cross and that I had no idea why they would do it. I saw no infractions of hauling weapons in red cross vehicles like we had sometimes heard.
Pvt. Robert Cone came walking into the front yard one day followed by a couple of Wehrmacht soldiers who had rifles pointed at his back. Robert was on our regimental boxing team and had been captured somewhere in Normandy. He was walking barefooted.
I greeted him and asked where his boots were.
He said, “They took them off me.”
I asked why. He said, “they think I’m a Jew.”
Instead of Cone, they insisted that his name was Cohen. He showed them his dog tags spelling his name Cone. Robert was able to walk and showed no serious injury at that time. He never made it back from the war. I heard later I was the last American to see Cone alive..
A severely wounded German was placed on a litter in a half dark room and was believed to be dead. While walking by the door I glanced in and saw him gasp. I raced to the room where the medical officers worked and insisted that one come with me. I showed them how he gasped for air and that I was sure he was still alive. He was taken down to the emergency or operating room, and word was sent to me that they knew he was still alive, but they were very busy and waiting for his turn.
A few days later I was told to go down to where the staff was being paid and collect a month’s pay. I will always believe that it was the Kommandant’s idea. I went to this room and only a couple were still in line. I got behind them and received some amazing stares from them. They were soon paid their 24 Francs and I was up next. The guy in charge said, “Ah, a paratrooper”, and counted out 36 Francs. I was paid 12 Francs more than the Wehrmacht staff! I was then taken down the hall where a hall closet was unlocked and opened. He gave me seven cigarettes, about four cigars, a couple of bitter-sweet chocolate bars, and a bottle of wine. He then said, “Don’t tell anyone about this next gift or I’ll end up a prisoner.” He then handed me a bottle of Cognac. I neither smoked nor drank, but the patients were very happy to share the stuff with me. I kept the chocolate bars. The idea of paying me must have come from the old Kommandant. I hope that he survived the war. Mortain was taken by the Allies for times before finally hanging on.
I saw a discarded German gas mask one day and while taking a close look at it, I felt a tap on my shoulder by a German officer. All he said was, “Nicht”. I got the message and left it alone.
Back at the front, my medical officers, Major Kent and two Captains, had heard that I was seen to have been machine-gunned and supposedly sank in a swamp. They took long sticks and prodded for my body. I never learned the identity of the lost medic.
There were a few German soldiers working at this hospital who hated the sight of all Americans and made life for us as miserable as possible. Numerous insulting things were thrown at us. Shorted on rations, beds taken away, moved to the top floor, no laundry, work the woodpile on Sunday, constantly spied on and harassed, etc. The rotten character in the kitchen was so mean to us that I swore if I ever got a chance I’d kick his ass, but good. That chance never came. In that same kitchen, a former butler to a New York millionaire worked there and sometimes treated us very well.
The German medical officers were true gentlemen and worked long hours under much strain. The one in charge here at Moratin, who Mike and I called the Kommandant, was truly fair and square. We never knew his real name. Beyond a reasonable doubt, he was the most overworked man I have ever known. We thought he was old but was probably only about 50. His nose had been cut off at some time and placed back lopsided. One day, with sign language, I asked him what happened. He took off his cap, parted his hair, and showed me a large scar running front to back, right on top of his head. He then took a fencing stance, meaning that he got the huge scar, plus the nose off, by fencing with no protection. That practice was considered real macho by the bravest of the brave, Germans and Prussians. One day this German doctor and two medical Colonels worked very hard on a badly wounded Yank and summoned an ambulance for the trip to Rennes.
From the front, an American arrived one day and I could see no signs of a wound. We bedded him down and he showed me a large professional type bandage around his penis. He told me that he had been hit hard there then captured. A couple of days later, a German medical officer, just in from the front, came to our room and inquired about the prisoner with such an injury. He seemed glad to see him and showed a likable personality in visiting with the patient. He looked only at the bandage and chose not to open it.
The blood around some bandages drew flies that laid eggs. They turned into small white maggots that did no real harm. They have been known to eat away at dead flesh. They seemed worse as the weather warmed in July.
The Germans were getting supplies only by truck, as the railroads were all but destroyed by American and British dive bombers. The Germa convoys of trucks could travel only by darkness and would hide during the day. Their camouflage had to be good. The Allied planes searched for anything to strike. One day they knocked a lone German soldier off his bicycle. He was hit in both legs, but able to walk. He saw the plane and recognized it as enemy but had no idea that it ould turn loose the .50 caliber guns on him. He told me how he and the bike were blown off the road into a ditch.
An English speaking German drove an ambulance back and forth to the front. He would drop by for a “hello” whenever possible. His name was Argus and he had been a Baker in New York for Eight Years. His personality was pleasant and his friendship was appreciated.
The Top Sergeant who directed the unloading of patients was a tall german with somewhat of a joking personality. He pulled my chin whiskers one day in fun and I threatened that if he didn’t treat me better, I would have the Americans shoot him when they arrived. At least I hoped that someday they would arrive. Not knowing his name, we nicknamed him “Stalin”. He was a dependable worker and tried to be pleasant, in spite of the difficult job of constantly unloading wounded soldiers. Some wounds were hard to describe. All rooms and hallways were full.
About fifty yards from the hospital ran a small stream with a short bridge over it. One day, one of our dive bombers spotted this bridge and tried to destroy it. Since the building was plainly marked with large red crosses on the top, I felt sure they would miss the building. When I saw that plane tilt down towards the ground, I knew he was after the bridge. I saw the bomb come out and start its slant towards the target. It missed its mark by many yards. A lot of the broken glass from the windows flew out into the courtyard. The French women were screaming and the Germans were running around like crazy. I was amused and totally unafraid as I stood there in the backyard and watched this take place, as I knew that the pilot would not bomb the building with the red crosses. Another attempt failed to take out the bridge.
All night long you could hear tanks and trucks on their way to bolster the German front. We controlled the skies and the channel. No German supplies came by rail or air. Very few trucks moved by day.
Before being moved from the second floor to the top, the Germans brought a severely wounded German soldier into our room and placed him on one of our empty cots. He had lost all color and was in critical shape. He laid unconscious for a few hours. I kept a close eye on him and watched as he regained consciousness. He heard English being spoken. He looked around and seeing only enemy soldiers, got up off that cot, and staggered out of that room and down the hall. I never saw him again.
Just below the window in this room was the front courtyard where a lot of activity went on day and night. One day, a black, two-seated convertible pulled up right below our window. A high ranking German Officer got out and stood there staring at our window. In a strong force of arrogance, he cursed and paced as he looked up toward our roomful of Allied wounded. I had a hand grenade but gave no thought of using it. That would have spelled quick death for all of us. I’m sure of that. Oftimes, Germans on the way to the front stopped for food. Most of the time there was black bread and soup. To my knowledge, there was no stash of weapons or ammunition.
Some of the Germans were curious and really wanted to see the Americans, British and Canadians they had been fighting. Most who came to look and visit spoke no English but used names like Max Schmelling, Joe Louis, Clark Gable, and Shirley Temple, knowing that we were familiar with those people. Some told us their boxing champion Schmelling, was shot in the leg on the isle of Crete near Greece. For some unknown reason, Sonia Heine was reported killed. One German had a funny paper from the Stars and Stripes. It showed Fearless Fosdick shooting a gangster in the head. The Germans thought that was funny. They thought of Chicago as a place where gangsters shoot one another while roaming freely. Many had that opinion and it was amusing to them.
There was a Russian who made trips to the front to get wounded. He told me that he had a wife and five children who he doubted he would ever see again after the war. Many Russians and Poles who had been prisoners of the Germans joined their Army. They explained it in this manner, “We were in concentration camps, cold, hungry, lonely and with dirty worn-out clothes. the Germans encouraged us to join their cause and receive new uniforms, food, money, travel, and a promise that we would not have to go to the front and fight”. That last promise was not kept. They were given a small shoulder insignia which they were proud to show off.
Near Carentan and St. Come du Mont, I ran into a Russian Cavalry unit who had dug foxholes for their horses. You could lead that horse down one side and even his ears would disappear. He would be led on out the other end when needed. Countless mercenaries fought for the Germans.
I was told that German General Rommel had been hit, but not to mention it. Word spread quickly and real soon everyone knew about it. Rommel was highly respected by the Wehrmacht. He set up the defense that cost us so much in dead and wounded while trying to gain a foothold on the European continent. At the time of the invasion, Rommel was at home for his wife’s birthday.
In late July the Allied troops broke the stalemate and the front lines moved closer to Mortain. I was sent to Rennes with my wounded and I finally got to see this “Hell Hole” called a prison hospital. I have also heard that it was called Stalag 221. There were 574 of us crammed into this old school building. The only medical supplies available were crepe paper and mercurochrome. No gauze, tape, aspirin, sulfa, or any of the much needed medical supplies. If you needed gauze, you had to the scabs and puss out of the well-used ones. It appeared to work reasonably well. The place was heavily guarded and ringed with barbed wire. I immediately saw Mike Weiden and he assured me that Moratin was a resort compared to this place.
I was given fourteen wounded to care for. One was a pilot who was severely burned on his head, face, arms and hands. They were black and crusted. He was not conscious, and during the night he would sink his fingernails deep into the crusted area around his cheeks. He would then bleed through his pad onto the floor, and be near death the next morning. It was suggested that I sit by his side at night a sponge his lips with water and keep his hands from damaging his face. I sat with him all night and cared for the other thirteen during the day. I asked for help but got none. There were plenty of useless loafers around the place, and they continued to loaf.
Food was scarce and far from adequate but we had a small source of getting a little extra black bread and soup. It came from the black Moroccan prisoners who were captured in 1940. They were trustees and worked for the Germans. Sometimes they left pieces of bread and small amounts of soup. We were glad to have their leftovers. There was an adjoining room where they ate. I never knew where they slept.
The fighting was drawing near Rennes. General Patton’s troops rounded the corner near Avranches and headed straight towards our area, taking only the highway. The Germans were on the run but put up a reasonably strong defense at Rennes. Our building was being shelled. The plaster fell from the ceilings and the blue glass windows flew into the halls and out into the yard. I asked all of the wounded who could, to please get under their beds. They would be somewhat protected from flying glass and falling plaster. The pilot couldn’t, and one patient wouldn’t. He said, “Hell! I’ve come this far and I’m not crawling under my bed”.
Some fellow from another part of the building decided to try to get the U.S. troops to stop shelling the building. He tied a white piece of sheet on a stick and went right out into the middle of the street waving that flag and nade it work! The Germans no doubt gave him permission. He was gone about an hour and then came back. Right down through both German and American lines. There had been alot of machine-gun fire, mortar, and artillery. No other shells hit the building. A mighty big THANKS to that soldier!
It wasn’t long until the Germans took off and left two Poles to guard us. they unloaded their rifles and handed them to us. They were scared and assured us that they were now the prisoners. We had no reason to harm them. The Americans had liberated Rennes, making it one of the happiest days of our lives.
Zol Rosenfeld was already thin as a skeleton. He seemed to have been shot everywhere. He was G.Co. supply sergeant. He regained his weight and then some, but never returned to combat.
It took three days to get the wounded out of there by jeep, truck, or anything that would move. I faced a problem of how to get back to England where the 101st had its home base. I was taken to a fenced area near Cherbourg and given a pup tent. I was told by the guy in charge that I would be reassigned to some other unit. I said, ‘NO, I’m going back to the 101st”. I needed to learn about the fate of my best buddy, Jim Hollen and about Dave Marcus. I needed to know what happened to everybody. It rained heavily and I dug a ditch around my tent, but to no avail, the blankets and my clothes got wet. A cold or the flu struck me and all I did was stay in that muddy tent day and night. I felt sick, and one day I told the officer in charge that I would be crawling over that fence when darkness fell. I reminded him that he had made no attempt to return me England. I took a dim view of his idea to reassign me to some other unit. He cursed me out and threatened to court-martial me. I don’t believe you would like to hear what I told him in return. About 4:00 p.m. he opened the flap on my pup tent and assured me that I would be leaving early the next morning. He asked that I stay put, and I assured him in that I would. Before daybreak, he awakened me and I was taken by jeep to a small landing field and told to get into a small Piper Cub type airplane.
Inside of that small craft was a pilot and a one-star General. I crawled in behind the very friendly and talkative General. He was interested in what had happened to me and told me that he was in charge of all the railroads in occupied France. It was near mid-August and a large portion of France had fallen to the Allies. The flight over the English Channel was plenty rough, but there was no one shooting at us! We flew to London and went to the U.S. Intelligence.
They wanted to know everything I could think of about the Germans. I told them about how they felt about being out of Africa, Sicily, half of Italy and a large portion of France. Many Germans could see the handwriting on the wall but many hadn’t. I told them how the German convoys traveled only at night and would hide in the trees during the day. Their camouflage was excellent and necessary. Many SS troops had heard that the Americans would take no SS prisoners. I assure them that we had thousands of them and that they were safe in camps in England. Most couldn’t believe it. I showed them my scrap paper telling about the ones we lost and where they were buried, and when.
I then went somewhere and cashed in my French Francs. Out of the $266, I sent two $100 money orders to the U.S. and kept the $66. That seemed to be a lot of money at the time.
I was given a train ticket to Hungerford, England which was about five miles from Ramsbury, where our 3rd battalion was billeted. I walked in that front gate and was afraid to ask who was not there. We had lost approximately 60% of our troops in the Normandy fighting. Some who were captured had escaped and were making their way back. Some of the wounded were already being returned from hospitals. My two best friends had made it through, but not easily. It was great to see Jim Hollen and Dave Marcus again. They were told that I had been machinegunned and sunk in a swampy area. My group of medic buddies had divided up my things. Some were wearing clothes with my name on them, but most of my stuff was given back. The Air Force had taken my 240 lb weight set. I never saw it again. I immediately got some new army clothes from Harry Lim, who was one of the supply men and from Tucson.
I learned out of our group of seventeen 3rd Battalion medics, two were killed, Herman Bonitz and Ralph Daudt. Several had been captured, but were recaptured by our own forces. It was good to see Captains Ryan and Morgan and the other medics, Eckman, Haycraft, Pelcher, Call, Clifton, Wynne, Evans, Kidder, Schmiege, etc. News of Captain Van Antwerp of G Co. being slaughtered soon after landing was hard to take. Our Battalion Commander, Lt. Col Robert Wolverton was also killed early that June 6th morning. Major Grant was killed, and the list goes on and on.
We received replacements and began training for another jump on the European continent, but we knew not where. Two were called off because Patton’s forces got there first. General Taylor called us together and assured us that we would soon have another mission. He seemed to be the only one who was anxious.
Tom Call and Maynard Clifton were killed in Holland. Tom got a piece of shrapnel through his eye and into his brain. Mynard was shot severely in the kidney. Robert Evans was killed near Noville, Belgium. I was seriously wounded in the same shelling just seconds later while patching wounds on Captain Jim Morton.
That ended my career as a front line medic.
The experience was enormous. During the eleven months it took for me to recover from my chest and liver shrapnel wounds, I constantly thought of the other medics who lost their lives trying to be of great help to the wounded. I’ll never forget Lloyd Carpenter, Howard Porter. Lloyd Smith, Ernest Oats, and the other medics that were mentioned. I know not why some return from wars and others remain. I have appreciated my time since the war and have tried to live a little for those who never made it back.
John W. Gibson was born on August 27th, 1921 in Humbolt, South Dakota and joined the U.S. Army on September 4, 1942 in Tucson, Arizona. He trained at Toccoa, Georgia, attended Jump School at Ft.Benning; Camp Mackall, NC and participated in the Tennessee maneuvers. He was sent to England in September 1943. He was proudest to have been a member of the 506th boxing team.
He was captured at daybreak on June 6, 1944 near Carentan, France, then attended to the wounded allied prisoners. He was liberated on August 4, 1944 in Rennes, Brittany; returned to England; Jumped into Holland and fought for 72 days. He then went to Mourmelon, France for replacements and then to Bastogne, Belgium by truck and trailers. The 101st airborne division arrived early on December 19th and relieved a battered infantry force. Placed near Foy, Belgium, he endured shellings, blizzard and frozen feet. Circled by German Armored Infantry, he refused to surrender. A mortar explosion hit him in the lung and liver on January 9th near Noville while he was patching wounds on Captain Jim Morton of G/Co. 506th. He was hospitalized for 11 months.
His awards include the Purple Heart, Bronze Star with OLC, and the Good Conduct Medal. His division received the French Croix De Guerre, Dutch Orange Lanyard, Belgium Fourragere, EAME Theatre Ribbon with three bronze stars, Distinguished Unit Badge (both France and Belgium) and the Presidential Unit Citation. He was discharged on December 5, 1945, as a Sergeant. He was a bodybuilder much of his life and was Mr. Arizona in 1950 and toured with a group of other bodybuilders doing balancing and strength shows.
He was married to Pearle Klamm and had four children: Shari, Marsha, Jim, and Steve. He owned and manages the Johnny Gibson Barber Shop and Gym Equipment Company in Tucson, AZ. He died in 2010 at the age of 88.
The boy was fetched. He puzzled over the parchment. “From what I can make out of this, they gonna take all our land for what they call the greater good of New York.”
Owens was indignant. “They can’t do that. We own this land. We own the houses on it!”
Williams smiled at this sally. A one-time shoeshine and the first settler of the village, he’d always thought it was only a matter of time before the whites realized what they had done. They’d probably pay the landowners, but not enough.
Historical Note: For African-Americans, Seneca Village offered the opportunity to live in an autonomous community far from the densely populated downtown. Despite New York State’s abolition of slavery in 1827, discrimination was still prevalent throughout New York City, and severely limited the lives of African-Americans. Seneca Village’s remote location likely provided a refuge from this climate. It also would have provided an escape from the unhealthy and crowded conditions of the City, and access to more space both inside and outside the home.
In 1853, the New York State Legislature enacted a law that set aside 775 acres of land in Manhattan — from 59th to 106th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues — to create the country’s first major landscaped public park.
The City acquired the land through eminent domain.
Ilya’s grandmother raised him to revere the old gods.
“Dal is the High King, ruler of the heavens and earth and all the lesser gods. Hela rules the darkness, Sela the heavens and thunder.”
He grips his rifle and stares through the open door of the C-47.
The aircraft bucks and judders in the gusts.
Next to him, Parks is heaving as though he might be sick.
Ilya hits him hard on the arm.
“Ow!” says Parks, looking hurt.
Ilya proffers a Lucky Strike, lights it with his brass Zippo.
A sound like thunder over the drone of the engines.
Distant flashes in the clouds.
Not thunder, then.
Anti-aircraft guns beneath the fog below.
Parks retches again.
Ilya waves his fist.
Parks shrinks back, grinning. “Just fucking with you.”
The wind brings with it a new smell of green woods.
Ilya closes his eyes and tries to remember the prayer to Sela.
What Pegman Saw: Chechnya
On the night of June 5th, 1944, 13,100 American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were dropped into France to secure inland positions for the enormous Allied invasion the next morning. High winds and foggy conditions scattered both the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions all over the countryside, with hundreds of soldiers landing in trees, swamps, and even rooftops. Despite a disastrous beginning, the Airborne was able to effectively assemble and take most of their objectives.
America being what it is, many of the soldiers were the sons or grandsons of immigrants from France, Italy, Germany, and even Chechnya. Traditional Chechens believed that trees were the abodes of spirits and developed many rituals to serve a complex cosmology of gods and demons.
There’s one in every Jersey town. More than one, probably. Named the same. Fat Tony’s. Greasy Joe’s. Vince’s. They all look the same, with the grease-slick linoleum floor that was never new, faded posters of barely-remembered movies, maybe a Pong or Pac-Man machine, maybe out of order.
The smell of cheese, of vinegar, of frying onions and peppers. Stacks of sub rolls piled on a rack, a well-worn slicer on the back counter. The shop’s first dollar in a cheap frame on the wall above a Polaroid of the owner’s father behind the counter, face bleached snow-white by the flashbulb.
Bunua-Varilla toyed with his coffee, swirling the petite silver spoon against the delicate porcelain cup. The president glowered through his spectacles across his vast desk, practically bubbling with impatience.
“The cause of the delay,” said the former director-general of the now-bankrupt French company, “is the lawyer Cromwell. Were it not for him, Mr. President, we would move forward.”
“You must understand, Mr. Varilla,” said Secretary Hay, “we are only speaking of hypotheticals. The United States Government doesn’t negotiate business deals.”
“He knows that, John,” said Roosevelt, fidgeting. His usual restless energy was barely contained. “What will it take, Mr. Varilla? Hypothetically.”
At last, the question nobody has had the temerity to ask. “Independence for the new republic, of course,” Bunua-Varilla said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Immediate diplomatic recognition from the United States. An embassy in Panama City.” He allowed himself a smile. “And of course, a great deal of money.”
The American president Theodore Roosevelt liked to boast “I took Panama”. He was referring to his part in the international negotiations and double-dealing that brought about the construction of the now-famous canal across the Central American isthmus in the early years of the 20th century.
Roosevelt’s aim was to ensure that the powerful navy he was creating could deploy as speedily against an Asian power (Japan) as a European one (Germany). The colossal engineering task was the first stroke of the “big-stick” diplomacy he preached. It also generated enough deceit and comic bravado for the plot of an operetta.
The former director-general of the bankrupt company, Phillipe Bunua-Varilla, wanted the United States to buy the concession that Colombia had granted the French, together with the abandoned works and equipment, which had been valued at a cool $109 million.
After many backroom meetings and a strawman Panamanian revolution fabricated by agents of the United States against a reluctant Columbia, a French intermediary was authorized to seek diplomatic recognition of the Republic of Panama and arrange the signing of a canal treaty with the US. Bunua-Varilla sent off $100,000 to the revolutionaries and the US State Department granted recognition to the new country within hours.